Somewhere in Cumbria, the middle of June 2007 at around midnight I was knee deep in mud making my way back to a camp site from a dry wall pub. Feeling my phone vibrate in my pocket I fished it out to find a text message informing me that Bernard Manning had died. A Guardian reading, Labour voting, vegetarian (as I was at the time) should have been elated with the news. Not me. I was filled with a profound sadness and I spent the rest of the journey back to my tent reciting my favourite Manning gags to my companion. I mourned the passing of Bernard Manning because Bernard Manning was a genius.
Those that were critical of Bernard were so on the grounds that he was both a misogynist and a racist. Bernard often attempted to refute those claims with the argument that a joke is a joke and should only be taken in that context. I’m not comfortable with this argument as a defence and therefore my case for Bernard’s defence will not try not to negate claims that Bernard was either a misogynist or a racist. In fact I shall labour under the assumption that he was both. My defence for Bernard as a performer relies on us. Those that watched Bernard and either laughed out loud or sniggered secretly behind hands and closed doors. My defence also relies on the art of comedy and what it is to be a truly great comedian.
So the first part of my argument really comes down to an examination of laughter which is what comedy is all about, unless of course I have hugely misinterpreted the art form. As comedy reaches a new golden age there are countless comedians to be seen in the stadiums and arenas across the country and we now have stand-up comedy on the television once again. It was said of Newman and Badiel in the early 1990’s that comedy was the new rock and roll. Those words have never been truer. Michael McIntyre and Lee Evans can fill the 02 Arena on demand and stand-up comedy has never seemed more glamorous that it does at present. The consumer of comedy has never had so much choice. But this notion of choosing comedy is peculiar notion. I believe that the contrary is true. Far from choosing the comedy that we are into comedy chooses us. You see laughter is kneejerk and we are unable to be selective about what makes us laugh. I realised this sometime in the mid 1990’s when I saw a ropey old VHS of Bernard Manning playing his own Embassy Club in Manchester. I didn’t ashamedly snigger behind my hands but I roared with laughter. As I grew a little older I attempted to distance myself from Bernard and more importantly from Bernard’s typical audience. I was ashamed to mention Bernard to any of my trendier, lefty friends who were in to Eddie Izzard at the time. When somebody recites and Eddie Izzard routine you can’t follow that with “Have you heard the one about queer Irishman and the crate of Guinness?” As I grew older still (early twenties now) I began to realise that neither I nor anyone else should be apologetic about what ‘tickles’ them as laughter is involuntary. In light of this I began to celebrate Bernard and his work and I began to defend him to my friends on the grounds that he was a genius.
I think the best and most poignant public defence of Bernard Manning was put forward by The Fall’s Mark E. Smith in a TV interview in 1993. When taken to task by broadcaster and journalist Caitlin Moran on Channel 4’s Naked City (a shamefully under rated magazine show) about his admiration for Manning Smith replied “Why doesn’t Ben Elton tell any racist jokes?” Moran shakes her head. “Because he doesn’t fucking know any” replies Smith. Although a little crude Smith’s argument was pin point in its accuracy. You see comedy is an art form and the protagonists are artists and there was none greater than Bernard Manning. Manning possessed a razor sharp wit and natural ability to tell a joke that very few comedians have matched. He had the natural rhythm and understanding of that over used comedic notion “timing”. Although their material is very similar Bernard Manning and the likes of, say, Roy Chubby Brown are worlds apart. This is because the likes of Roy Chubby Brown, Jim Davidson and Mike Reid were not blessed with Bernard’s ability to deliver a joke.
It is impossible to talk about Bernard Manning without words such as ‘homophobe’, ‘misogynist’, ‘racist’ and ‘bigot’ being thrown around. But I don’t believe that Bernard Manning was ever truly offensive. This is because I believe that to be truly offensive in comedy is to be unfunny. Bad comedy is perhaps the last true taboo in comedy. So while I would gladly see the likes of Brown, Davidson, Evans, McIntyre, Flannigan, Carr (both) and Fielding hung to out to dry I would defend Bernard Manning with my last breath. Why? Because Bernard Manning was gifted and even if you don’t appreciate the nature of his comedy you must appreciate his ability to execute it. If you’re reading this and you are of the opinion that Manning was an indefensible bigot then I shall leave you with a closing gambit; fear breeds prejudice, which makes for great humour. I laughed at his imaginative unpleasantness, but I swear that it never made me think about anybody differently.
Andy Ware is 31 years-old and has a small dog called Oliver. He is a paid-up member of the Labour Party and used to play bass in semi-legendary Hull band Sal Paradise. In his spare time he makes his own wine and watches rugby league. He once claimed his favourite album was Electric Warrior by T.Rex, which was a complete lie. He holds a degree in Philosophy, but you’d already guessed that. You can find him at http://www.twitter.com/XavierDwyer1